Lovecraft Black & White

Earlier this year I was asked to contribute to Lovecraft Black & White, a volume of original illustrations inspired by the works of H P Lovecraft, published by Dagon Press in Italy, and today my contributor’s copy arrived! There’s a lot of high-quality work here, which puts my offering rather in the pale, I can’t help thinking. I was among three who chose to depict “The Music of Erich Zann” — or “La musica di Erich Zann”, I should say, as the book is in Italian, of course.

I took the “black & white” literally and didn’t use any greys — everyone else seems to have! Here’s my pic. The main idea was to try and represent the music Zann used to calm the things beyond his cosmic window with a blending of occult and musical symbols:

Despite not being able to read the text, I love this short comic strip, which seems to be about the development of the young H P Lovecraft’s imagination. I must put the text through Google Translate to find out:

Here’s a couple more pages from the book:

Farewell, Book & Magazine Collector

This December sees the last ever issue of Book & Magazine Collector, after 26 years of publication. I was never a regular buyer, but usually had a look at the contents, and bought it if there was an author I was interested in. (I also went on a couple of back-issue binges over the years.) It was always gratifying to see how many fantasy, science fiction and horror authors the magazine covered.

It’s tempting to say the internet killed it, and this must be partly true, if only because B&MC was always at least half made up of wants & for-sale lists — stuff which came to seem quaint, not to say dated, when you consider how the internet has changed the buying of secondhand books. (Not all for the good, no — it’s almost impossible to find a bargain nowadays, and some prices get artificially inflated. But not all for the bad, either. I loved hunting through booklists for titles I wanted, but love far more being able to quickly search multiple booksellers and find all the available copies and editions of the book I want.) I never used that part of the magazine anyway. What really interested me were the articles about individual authors & illustrators, and that’s the thing I’ll miss.

But surely the internet has blogs and wikis enough to make up for that? In theory, yes. There’s nothing to stop people writing in-depth, well-researched, well-written articles about authors’ oeuvres and posting them on the internet. But, on the other hand, there’s nothing to spur them to do so, either. And that, really, is the difference with the internet: not in what it can do, but in what, in practice, it does do.

If nothing else, print magazines encourage higher standards. For the reader, they act as a stamp of quality; and the same stamp pushes the writer. This isn’t something that’s impossible on the internet, but, let’s face it, Wikipedia doesn’t seem to have a tag for “this article reads like it was written by a committee more interested in facts than readability”, as it does for “this article needs more references”. Good, expert writing tends to be led by examples set by the likes of B&MC. It’s all too easy, in a Wikified world, to forget what good writing is like.

Also, there’s just finding the information. When I started my website on David Lindsay (back in 1998), I assumed that, soon enough, every writer would get a website dedicated to them, providing all the information you want to know about them, including news, a bibliography, a biography, and so on. But it’s rather disappointing to see how few authors that I’m interested in have well-run, up-to-date websites — even the living ones! Fritz Leiber, for instance, is surely crying out for something as good as, say, this Tim Powers site, or this Joan Aiken one. (But Fritz Leiber is perhaps starting to see something of a revival, what with a new Selected Stories, a collection of rarities, and the cornucopia of download delights recently on CthulhuWho’s’s blog. So, there’s hope.)

Michael Moorcock’s Doctor Who novel — The Coming of the Terraphiles

The Balance has been pulled apart. The Multiverse has gone out of kilter. Matter is corrupting antimatter, Law is infecting Chaos, Chaos is infecting Law. The Doctor receives a garbled message alerting him to the dire state of the Multiverse, and in characteristically quirky style, immediately makes for the planet Peers in the year 51,007, to engage in a good ol’ game of whackit (the far-future’s best attempt at reconstructing a certain traditional English sport). After a foreword in classic science-fantasy style, in which we are introduced to the space-pirate Captain Cornelius, Moorcock relaxes into P G Wodehouse mode, as the plot to save the very nature of existence centres around the theft of a very valuable, though horrendously ugly hat.

Moorcock is obviously enjoying himself. The Terraphiles of the title, far from being some evil lizard-like alien, turn out to be a far-future society of historical re-enactment enthusiasts, whose particular interest is early 20th century England (the planet Peers is a terraformed theme-park based on a sort of “never-never England”). The Doctor, of course, is a fully-paid up Terraphile (which perhaps explains why he’s so fond of saving 20th century England from those endless alien invasions…), not to mention a dab hand with a whackit bat. (The sports scenes do tend to sound a bit Quidditchy, at times.)

If the threat to the Multiverse does, after a while, feel more like a maguffin to get Moorcock’s fruity collection of far-future retro-fictional “Decent Chaps, Silly Asses, Pretty Girls, Kindly Uncles and Terrifying Aunts” (not to mention space-pirates and Aetheristic sea-dogs) on a spaceship voyage together, it’s only because his primary goal seems to be having a bit of fun with the Doctor Who universe. So, don’t expect a compelling story, but do expect plenty of imagination, sly references to Moorcock’s own work (as well as a few favourites of his, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Hawkwind, and perhaps a subtle Blue Oyster Cult reference in one chapter title), alongside lashings of Wodehousian fun. If nothing else, it’s worth it to read Moorcock’s rendering of the TARDIS dematerialisation sound: like “rusty shopping carts being dragged over sheets of corrugated tin” — the most accurate description yet!

Tom Baker’s Rasputin

One of my earliest memories is of Tom Baker’s first appearance as Doctor Who when I was three, which may be why he seemed so perfectly suited to the role — for me, he defined it. As a result, there’s always been the need for a little mental adjustment whenever I see him in anything else, and I find myself thinking of how much this other character he’s playing is like his version of the Doctor. (Of course, Tom Baker is one of those actors who excels in a part precisely to the degree he’s allowed to play the one character he does so well — I’d say himself, only I don’t know the man, so can’t tell whether it is himself or, as is more likely, some fantasy version that’s only allowed to be let loose as part of a performance.) It’s odd to think that his gaining the role of the Doctor was a bit of a departure from the direction his career seemed to have been heading, considering the two major film parts he had before it — Koura in The Golden Voyage of Sindbad, and Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra — were both villainous types, something his smouldering glare seemed perfectly fit for. As the Doctor, he occasionally played up this darker side — the side that made up the whole, really, of his sorcerer Koura in The Golden Voyage, a role that was only hampered by Baker not being able to incorporate his other, more humorous side, which was the other essential element he brought to the Doctor.

This may be one reason why, although I hadn’t seem him in 1971’s Nicholas and Alexandra — till last night, that is — I thought Rasputin would be a perfect part for him, encapsulating, as it does, that almost bipolar mix of brooding gloominess and sudden impulsive generosity that characterised his Doctor. Rasputin is (in the film, at least) a peculiar combination of visionary religious fervour and an all-too-human weakness for that old trio of wine, women, and political influence. The character has the potential to become a sort of Falstaff, endlessly and engagingly self-justifying his faults while at the same time promoting a heroicised, fantasy version of himself. Rasputin knows he is a sinner, but also knows God loves sinners, because he made so many of them into saints. This is certainly how a Tom Baker Rasputin could have been, if only he’d had the film to himself. As it is, Nicholas and Alexandra is, of course, mostly about Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra, and although Rasputin plays an important part in their story, it’s their far more sober, not to say somber, restrained character that presides. Baker’s Rasputin is a bit like a Dostoyevskian madman straitjacketed into a more urbane Tolstoyan world — and as a result, he never quite manages to take off. If he were allowed to, he’d certainly swallow up the whole film. (Though there are an awful lot of excellent British character actors in the other parts, so this isn’t to detract from them; it’s just that they are mostly playing more well-bred types.) As it is, he’s allowed plenty of opportunities to glare his bulbous eyes hypnotically at whoever he’s talking to — this glaring-from-under-the-brows look was no doubt the thing that landed him the role, as the director makes sure to include one shot of it in each scene where Baker appears — but doesn’t really get a chance to do anything other than smoulder. The burning vitality beneath the glare only comes close to being unleashed in Rasputin’s final scene, where we get a rather muted moment of decadence, a roar of defiance, then a drawn-out death.

Baker was nominated for two Golden Globe awards for his role in Nicholas and Alexandra (one for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and another for Best Newcomer, according to Wikipedia, though Baker’s own site says he was only nominated for one), but to me the film seemed to be straining at the bounds of its genre — it was a late version of the big historical epics of the 50s and 60s, and was perhaps a little too polite for what the actor was really capable of.